Interview with Ambassador Stefano Toscano, Director of GICHD
Ambassador Stefano Toscano heads the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) since January 2014. He welcomed us in his office, at the Maison de la paix, to talk about his new responsibilities, his priorities for the Centre and the highlights for 2014.
The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) is an expert organization that works to eliminate mines, explosive remnants of war and other explosive hazards in mine-affected countries. Today, more than 80 countries are still contaminated by mines and explosive remnants of war. Recent conflicts, like two years ago in Libya or today in Syria remind us, if necessary, that this problem is still relevant despite the major advances realized since the adoption of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention back in 1997.
Based at the Maison de la paix, GICHD is made of 48 staff including international experts in mine action, disarmament, humanitarian issues or international law to cite a few. Its Director, Ambassador Stefano Toscano, joined the centre in January 2014. He brings to this position an extensive experience both in multilateral diplomacy as well as in disarmament and humanitarian issues.
In this interview, he talks to us about his new responsibilities, his priorities for the Centre and the highlights for 2014.
Tell us about your new role as GICHD Director. What does it entail?
The role of the Director is first of all formally described in our statutes. Accordingly, under the strategic guidance of the Council of the Foundation, the Director is responsible for the operational, financial and administrative management of the Centre. I recently started in this new position and I am still in the process of growing into this role. That being said, there are some key elements which are important to me.
First of all, as a Director, I think a key responsibility is to ensure that the Centre keeps its eye on the ball. For us, that means a vision of a world free of mines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war in order to save lives and promote development. Another key responsibility is to make sure that we stay and flourish in the sector as a main actor. Key elements thereof include clarity regarding our mandate and strategy, creating the best possible working environment for our colleagues and ensuring good and productive relationships with our partners, be they mine action authorities, donors, international agencies, NGOs, or academic institutions.
What do you like the most in your new job?
First of all, I identify very strongly with the mandate of the Centre. I have a strong personal interest and have been dealing with issues relating to disarmament, human security and humanitarian affairs throughout my career. Taking this position was a logical step for me.
I also carry much experience in the multilateral world and I was pleasantly surprised to meet many former colleagues with whom I used to work in Bern dealing with small arms and light weapons as well as in New York and Vienna.
I find the international working environment, both within the Centre and in international Geneva, very stimulating. I am very thankful for the warm welcome from my new colleagues, who are renowned international experts and represent the Centre's key strength.
Have you identified priorities?
My main priority at the moment is to get up to speed! I am still on a steep learning curve.
This is a special year for the Centre for many reasons. First of all, we moved into the Maison de la paix earlier this year. Secondly, we are undergoing an evaluation and are in the process of developing our new strategy. This means that we are looking into the future, taking into account the evolving working context and making sure that we continue to be relevant in what we do and valuable to the communities that we serve.
Regarding the mine action sector, while the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention is a success story - as it helped address the issue of anti-personnel mines and led to impressive results - there is still much work to be done. Although a number of States are reaching completion there is still some residual contamination to address. One should not forget that European States that were involved in World War II such as Germany, the UK and Italy are still finding bombs almost on a daily basis. So it will be important for States to realise that we need to find a way to address the problem of residual contamination.
It is also important to be open to new or less known issues. The Centre is well-positioned to do so because we have systematic contact with the field. For instance, we are currently focusing on anti-vehicle mines. They are not banned and pose a great threat to lives and livelihoods. In Cambodia, for example, we have seen that the move from manual to mechanised agriculture led to more accidents related to anti-vehicle mines than anti-personnel mines. These mines do not explode when stepped on, but need stronger pressure. In the fields, tractors activate mines that were laid there decades earlier. We therefore need to keep our eyes open and realise that with the changes of society, certain weapons might increasingly become a threat.
What are, according to you, the three main characteristics of the GICHD?
First of all, the Centre is an enabling organisation: it enables mine action actors to improve their performances and be more efficient at the strategic, management and technical levels.
Secondly, from what I have seen so far - and I was very pleased to see it, during a recent field visit in South-East Asia – is that the centre enjoys the trust of its partners. We are perceived as an independent and impartial organisation driven by the wish to promote standards and evidence-based policies.
Thirdly, the GICHD is in the position to capitalize on its field experience to do research work and turn its findings into good practice and guidance that help our partners strengthen their work.
What kind of challenges are you expecting?
Regarding the mine action sector, one challenge is finishing the job. The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention and the Convention on Cluster Munitions are not universal yet. Besides that, countries need continued support to clear their lands from mines and cluster munitions. As was the case two years ago in Libya or today in Syria, we are witnessing that anti-personnel mines are still being used. This is of concern.
It is also vital to build bridges: mine action should not be addressed in isolation, but as part of broader agendas, including development, peace promotion and security. I think that mine action has a lot to offer and a lot to gain from these exchanges. We have developed methodologies, tools and approaches that can be useful for other sectors and we can also take advantage of those other sectors to enrich the way we go about doing mine action.
Another challenge of importance is to ensure that we are moving towards full national ownership. The mine action sector is characterised by the presence of international NGOs and agencies which have been supporting countries for many years. Our goal is to ensure that national authorities have the full capacity to address current and future problems.
Finally, given that the Centre stands and falls with the people who work for it, it is a constant challenge to make sure that we keep top experts.
What are the highlights of your Centre in 2014?
One of the core functions of the Centre over the years has been the development of a database for the mine action sector called the "Information Management System for Mine Action (IMSMA)". The GICHD developed this database and supports countries using it through training and remote assistance. The system relies on a geographic information system (GIS) component that allows countries to manage and plan demining operations on the ground. They can therefore record what has been cleared and what remains to be done. We are releasing a new version of IMSMA in 2014, which is more responsive to the needs of the users and take into account their comments and feedback. An added functionality also allows countries to manage the victim assistance dimension of their programs. This constitutes a major development.
Another highlight is our work on underwater contamination. We normally associate mines with land but actually there are mines and explosive remnants of war in waters, harbours, lakes, rivers, oceans. These explosive remnants of war do not only have a humanitarian impact but also environmental, developmental and security implications. Affected communities need a standard on how to go about underwater contamination, and the Centre is working on developing guidelines in consultation with the various parties concerned. We will then submit these guidelines to the United Nations for their formal endorsement.
This year, we are also focusing on outreach. We have published an updated version of our flagship document, the 5th edition of the Guide to Mine Action, we have redesigned our website and we are developing our linguistic outreach programmes. It is important to us to share what we produce in the local language. This year we are focusing on the Persian language and we will be organising a workshop in May in Teheran for Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
You recently moved to the Maison de la paix. Which role do you foresee for this new hub?
We, at the GICHD, believe strongly in this notion of Maison de la paix. We feel that this location has the potential to become more than the sheer sum of its parts. It is a place where actors can meet, think and act. There is a wish now among the various partners to take advantage of potential synergies we might develop in relation to certain aspects of our work
One concrete example is the issue of monitoring and evaluation. This is getting ever more attention because organisations need to be fully accountable for what they do and to make sure that they are moving towards fulfilling their goals. We have been joining forces over the last few years with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) and the Small Arms Survey, all of which are or will be hosted here at the Maison de la paix. Together, we provide training on monitoring and evaluation for actors in this area. This seems to be very useful and much appreciated. There is a wish to proceed and concretise certain ideas and I am hopeful that we will be doing that even more.